Game Review: WWF SmackDown!

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Image Source: Amazon

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Publisher: THQ
Developer: Yuke’s
Genre: Wrestling
Series: SmackDown! (It would become SmackDown vs. Raw and WWE in future)
Released: March 2 2000 (US) and April 14 2000 (UK)
Certificate: 15+ (Nowadays 16)
Consoles: PS1

And so comes the time to review the game that started the entire SmackDown!/SmackDown vs. Raw/WWE flagship videogame series, the very first entry – the original SmackDown! As strange as it may sound now, fans weren’t quite sure what to expect from SD, since it was the first WWF game to be produced on PlayStation by THQ. Acclaim had lost the WWF licence in 1999 to THQ, and whilst the highly-lauded WrestleMania 2000 had hit the Nintendo 64, that game had been developed by AKI, whereas SD would be developed by something of an unknown quantity in Yuke’s.

Rumours about the game, which would reach stores in the spring of 2000, ranged from a hybrid of WWF and Japanese talent to a reduced focus on actual wrestling to (and this was a frightening propsect) a virtual repeat of the largely-panned WCW Thunder game, since WM 2000 bore more than a passing resemblance to WCW/nWo Revenge (I should mention that THQ had been publishing games for WCW, and their success earned them the WWF licence). As the hype progressed, the announcement of certain new features suddenly had fans excited, since the end product would apparently be something totally different from previous wrestling titles. In the end, whilst the game didn’t quite match expectations in certain key areas, it nevertheless delivered a thrilling overall package, one which blew away any previous wrestling games on the PSOne console, and ultimately began the most successful wrestling videogame series ever.

SmackDown! featured a few dozen WWF names from the corresponding time period, which as luck would have it was the Attitude Era, meaning that all the heavy-hitters that you would expect were here. Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Mankind, Kane and Triple H led the way, along with Vince McMahon and Shane McMahon, D-Generation members Chyna, X-Pac and The New Age Outlaws, and the fairly recent acquisitions from WCW, Big Show and Chris Jericho. Add to that some popular mid-carders like Val Venis, The Godfather, Al Snow, Hardcore Holly and D’Lo Brown, and the first WWF videogame appearances for The Dudley Boyz, and you have a respectable line-up for the first game of the series. The downside is that WM 2000 quite a few more performers (including Shawn Michaels), and the use of hidden characters was questionable, as I will explain later. Plus, unlike WM 2000 or even the recent Acclaim titles, none of the wrestlers had proper alternate attires. Nevertheless, for fans who had only been able to play War Zone and Attitude, the roster should have been fairly satisfying. Incidentally, it is rumoured that Jeff Jarrett and Goldust would have been included had they not departed the company for WCW in mid-to-late 1999, and as it turned out, Jarrett has not appeared on a WWF/WWE game since his controversial defection.

The graphics almost resembled hand-created drawings, as the general look of the game appeared to be sketchy in the most literal term. The colour seemed a little off in places, if not incomplete for the likes of ring ropes. However, they were still impressive for the time (the wrestlers looked fairly authentic, and this was the first game that allowed wrestlers to change facial expressions, such as Chris Jericho sporting a cocky grin), and they were very different from the more blocky, colour-heavy and almost cartoonish visuals in WM 2000. Bear in mind that we’re judging the game from the standards of the late 20th/early 21st century, so anybody who picks up SmackDown!, or even WrestleMania 2000, today would be very disappointed if they were expecting graphics on the level of, say, WWE 2K17. But by the standards of the era (and don’t forget that we were in the dying days of the 64-bit era back then), the graphics were adequate. What’s more, the arenas were more lifelike than they had ever been in the Acclaim games, as I will now explain.

Whereas War Zone and Attitude development teams had filmed the action from inside a lifelike Raw arena, which looked good but wasn’t quite on par with the real setting, Yuke’s appeared to design the backgrounds from scratch, as they had captured every minor detail of the Raw and SmackDown! venues, such as the big screens and even the WWF.com sign above the entrance way at Raw. The same applied to arenas in WM 2000, but partly because the action would be shown on the Titan Tron and Oval Tron screens, they looked a little more authentic here. These were the only two full arenas included: they were ring mats for the big five PPVs (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, King Of The Ring, SummerSlam and Survivor Series), but a generic PPV “aisle” was the entrance way if you chose to grapple at those venues (although you could switch between aisles and rings, so for example you could put the Raw aisle to a WrestleMania ring). Also, the ring mats sported event logos which is very rarely used in the WWF/WWE; it had been a WCW and to an extent an ECW tactic, but very rarely did it apply to the WWF/WWE, making the rings a little less authentic than in reality. This is just a minor thing, though, and whilst WM 2000 had the full arenas for the main PPV shows, SmackDown! had, well, SmackDown!, the newest WWF show which debuted on a permanent basis too late to make it into the N64 title, and overall, PSOne fans shouldn’t have been too disheartened.

Plus, chances are you’d be more interested in where you’d end the fights rather than where you’d begin them, because this was the first WWF game to include backstage fighting, based on the popularity of Hardcore battles that could end up anywhere on WWF television at the time. Attitude had apparently looked to include this feature but it was ultimately dropped, and WCW Mayhem, produced by EA Sports, had actually been the first wrestling game to include backstage areas (which were pretty decent). But SD was the first WWF game to go down that route, and whilst it had fewer areas than Mayhem did, the rooms on SD were far more interesting because they ahd interactive hotspots, like ramming an opponent into a drinks machine which would produce a soda can to use as a weapon, and there were unique props to use such as Pierre (Al Snow’s deer-head mascot) and a huge watermelon. Why a watermelon, you ask? Well, one of the areas was a huge kitchen, which boasted a huge table to fight on that contained household food items. Add to that the cool SFX such as a car alarm going off if you rammed a wrestler into it, and the fairly easy transitions between rooms during Hardcore bouts, and you end up with a very entertaining option that is greatly superior to the same feature in Mayhem, as well as offering something totally different from WM 2000 and something which made SD stand out in its own right.

The most notable aspects of the game, though, were its gameplay and control scheme. The action was fast-paced, perhaps too fast, but it had an arcade feel to it whilst not compromising the attempt to resemble the actual in-ring product rather than adding cool-looking yet unrealistic effects that previous wrestling games had, such as The Undertaker using thunder in WrestleMania: The Arcade Game. Wrestlers would hit moves very quickly, and recover quickly to absorb or dish out more punishment, which back in the rapid-fire Attitude Era was a very welcome change from the slow-paced combat in the Acclaim games. Speaking of which, games like War Zone required  a combination of several buttons to execute even the most basic moves, whereas SmackDown! focused almost all of its wrestling around the Circle button, with a direction and Circle allowing you to perform the vast majority of the moves. L1 was used for finishing moves, and once you reached a certain level of momentum, you could hit a finisher at any point, and you could store several finishers for later use, a feature absent in WM 2000 where you had a window of opportunity to hit one or two finishers, depending on how adventurous you were feeling. It may sound familiar and simple now, but back then the one thing that most wrestling games were missing was an actual good wrestling engine. WM 2000 had taken big strides forward, admittedly by recycling the Revenge engine, but SmackDown! took things to a whole new level, and set a new standard by delivering the most exciting and easy-to-use wrestling system ever in a game. Add to that how all of the authentic moves were in, along with minor touches such as The Rock removing his elbow pad for The People’s Elbow, and it’s safe to say that at that point in time, SmackDown! delivered the most entertaining gameplay to date in a wrestling title.

The innovations didn’t end there. As well as the standard Single, Tag Team, Steel Cage and Royal Rumble matches, SmackDown! delivered match types that were new to WWF titles. There were ECW-style innovations to multiplayer bouts, since Three Way Dance and Four Way Dance are different to Triple Threat and Fatal Four Way, and the backstage areas obviously changed Hardcore matches in wrestling games forever (especially since you had the option to begin the match from one of the backstage areas), but of greater note were the first appearances for Special Guest Referee and I Quit matches. The former had become a major part of Attitude Era shenanigans, and since you could pick any wrestler to be a referee and you could deliver fast/slow counts and even attack the participants, this was a huge slice of fun, whilst the I Quit match lacked voiceovers (which matters in a stipulation bout requiring someone to say “I Quit”), but the visuals of an opponent giving up along with the ability to take these scraps backstage too, and with the infamous Mankind-Rock I Quit showdown still fresh in mind, this was another fine addition to the game. Some may have expected a little more from the game match-wise, but it was still more than what WM 2000 was offering, and the match selections would grow enormously in the second SD title.

Create A Wrestler was in, although it had some flaws as I will explain, so the most notable feature was Create A PPV, which was also relatively simplistic, except for one part: the fact that your matches and shows would achieve ratings, pushing you to create more engaging action in the future in an attempt to achieve higher ratings down the road, which was a nice and underrated tool to have. All of the theme tunes and entrance videos were up-to-date, and this was the first game to have the entrance videos play to a TV standard rather than a couple of blurry images for the videos in WM 2000. There were no voiceovers, but an unseen referee would give sound effects such as one-two-three counts in a bizarre Texan drawl, and the crowd provided a fairly good atmosphere in line with the similarly fast-paced BGM playing during matches and menus. A Rankings system illustrated which wrestlers were of the highest level, and which wrestlers were in line for title shots (incidentally, you could put a title on the line in any Exhibition match providing that the right contenders were in the bout, and every WWF title except for Light Heavyweight was in). And an extended version of the actual SmackDown! intro opened the game.

The downsides were that entrances were very short and consisted of a wrestler walking in front of their entrance video for a brief period, rather than coming down ther aisle in the usual fashion. Royal Rumbles were extremely tricky and not very realistic, and the one match type in the game which fans were better advised to avoid. Loading times were pretty lengthy across the board, and speaking of Rumbles, there were loading times before each entrant which wasn’t exactly satisfying. Most notably, though, the much-hyped Season mode was a let-down: promising real-life storylines and authentic action, the mode (which also had a Pre-Season chapter) consisted of only monthly shows, where you actually may not even be wrestling on them, so you could go several months of the Season without competing. The cut-scenes were brief and, although decent for the time, they didn’t come close to resembling the storylines on WWF television. Items could be unlocked easily enough, but the unlockable wrestlers had to be created from scratch in what was a basic Create A Wrestler option. Worse still, you could unlock parts for almost a dozen grapplers (including alternate parts for Steve Austin and The Rock), but you could only design up to four wrestlers which, for obvious reasons, was woefully inadequate (not least that it prevented you creating any other wrestlers if you wanted to design those with hidden parts). It was a shame that for all of its innovations and exciting additions, the game was a big disappointment in a major area, which would be improved upon in SD 2, but arguably wouldn’t reach its true potential for several years, at least in the SD series. WrestleMania 2000 definitely bested SmackDown! here.

To judge the game fairly, you have to judge it by the standards of the time. Compared to every other title in the series, it’s obviously light on wrestlers, matches and modes. The graphics were basic, there were some limitations, and Season mode was a big let-down. However, by 2000 standards, it was still better than any other wrestling game on PlayStation that had come before it, and it did deliver an incredible and exciting combination of fast-speed paction, easy controls and entertaining moves and weapon attacks, along with the endless fun of the backstage warfare. It was great by 2000 standards, although it would be easily squashed by its sequel, which built upon almost everything that this game had to deliver a truly amazing game. In the end, whilst it may have fallen a little short of the massive hype, and whilst WrestleMania 2000 was a stronger overall game, WWF fans should have still been more than satisfied by the very first SmackDown!, and it would have become an essential title to own if you were watching WWF television at the time. If nothing else, you could rejoice that the days of barely lifelike wrestling from the early 1990s, unrealistic action from the mid-1990s and awkward controls from the late 1990s were finally over, because THQ had delivered two games on two consoles which succeeded in different ways. Things would get even better with SmackDown! 2 and No Mercy as 2000 neared its end, but in the meantime, whether you opted for WrestleMania 2000 or SmackDown!, you were bound to have a lot of wrestling-related fun. And if you did decide to go for the PlayStation option, you probably would have had, and still today probably would have, a whale of a time playing SmackDown!

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good